Lessons on happiness from Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard
I sat down with
Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who found himself
famous among the TED Talk set and reluctantly decided to use
the spotlight to share teachings.
He said meeting with powerful people taught him that
“success” should not be defined solely by influence, but by
He explained the value of acceptance of things beyond
your control, and knowing when to trust your heart.
Matthieu Ricard is not someone who uses
spirituality as a way to get famous — in fact, learning to accept
the fame that’s been given to him and use it as an opportunity
for good was turning point.
Ricard, 71, is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who moved to the Himalayas
from France in his 20s and became a monk at age 30. His first got
the media’s attention in 1997 when
he co-authored a book with his father Jean-François, a
renowned philosopher. Since then, he’s given two TED
Talks that went viral online, and written multiple
bestsellers. He gives his share of any of his projects’ proceeds
to his charity, Karuna-Shechen,
which provides health care and educational services to
underserved communities in India, Nepal, and Tibet.
The media has been fond of calling Ricard “the happiest man
alive,” a title Ricard tries to discourage, after Ricard’s gamma
brain waves were measured to be the strongest in a 2000 University of
He’s also a confidante of the Dalai Lama, and serves as his
You can listen to the full episode
And though we discussed the arc of his life, he also shared
lessons that particularly resonated with me.
There are two types of success
While Ricard now spends most of his time in isolation, he was
born to famous socialites, a writer and a painter, who held
parties with the likes of the composer Igor Stravinsky and
photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Even at a young age he could tell that all of the indicators of
external success — influence, respect, wealth — were not always
accompanied by happiness. When he devoted his life to Buddhism as
a young man, he realized that happiness is a skill, a honed way
of viewing the world, that does not automatically accompany the
trappings of this external success.
Ricard said that he instead prefers the type of success he calls
“personal flourishing,” which is “fulfilling my deepest
And by “deepest aspiration,” he means something much more
existential than aspiring to a big paycheck or lavish home. He’s
referring to a success defined by self-fulfillment for the
purpose of positively affecting others. “So to transform yourself
to serve others,” he said.
It is sometimes the most rational choice to trust your intuition
“Go with your gut,” sounds like reckless, foolish advice. But one
of Ricard’s stories made me realize there are times to trust your
As a young man, Ricard studied molecular genetics under a Nobel
laureate at the prestigious Pasteur Institute. He would take
breaks from his studies to pursue his growing interest in
Buddhism, and traveled to Darjeeling to learn from spiritual
masters. Ricard ultimately received his PhD, but when it came
time to decide what to do with his life, the decision was easy.
“It was not at all a hard decision,” Ricard said, of his choice
to begin a path to monkhood. “I never had any agitation.” He
compared it to fruit that has ripened on a tree: “At some point
you don’t have to pull and break the branch to get the fruit.
It’s just touch it and it falls in your hands.”
He had given himself plenty of time throughout his travels back
and forth between India and France to decide what felt right to
him, and when it was time, he didn’t make a list of pros and cons
for each option — he followed his heart and acted without
hesitation. Ricard said that since that point, he has made every
major decision in his life the same way.
It is necessary to accept what you cannot change
Ricard wrote the book “The
Monk and the Philosopher” primarily as a bonding experience
with his aging father. But when the attention followed, he
decided to follow the Dalai Lama’s example and use celebrity as a
way to spread lessons about happiness and fulfillment.
Then, after the Independent covered the findings of the
meditation study Ricard participated in, they named him “the
happiest man in the world” in 2007. No matter how many times
Ricard objected, the phrase kept appearing in outlets around the
The title came up when Ricard was with one of his teachers, and
he said his teacher told him, “Just leave. Make use of it for a
good purpose, for the human project.” That is, if people insist
on calling him “the happiest man in the world,” then use that
opportunity to teach them how to be happier.